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Fencing: Unexpected lessons from grade school lead to college passion

Michael Todisco | Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Elementary school gymnasiums are often filled with dull activities; square dancing, gymnastics and dodge ball are among the pastimes dreaded by young students. For freshman fencer Ariel DeSmet, however, his elementary school gymnasium was where his future passion would be identified.

“A local fencing coach came to my grade school back in 1999 and offered a few classes,” DeSmet said. “When he saw that I did well he offered to give me free lessons and free stuff, and from there I really got into it.”

While DeSmet did not fence for his school, he refined his skills at the Northwest Fencing Center in Beaverton, Ore. Under the tutelage of top coaches, DeSmet excelled on the junior circuit, competing for the United States team at world competitions on four occasions.

Many of these tournaments were hosted in different countries, an aspect of the sport that DeSmet truly enjoys.

“Fencing is a pretty unique sport in that it allows you to travel all over the world; Europe, China, Japan,” DeSmet said.

“Turkey was my favorite. I got to spend three weeks right on the Mediterranean coast.”

When it came time to choose a school, DeSmet’s decision was easy. Notre Dame’s combination of competitive dominance and top coaching was too good to pass up.

“Notre Dame [is] the powerhouse of my weapon, the foil,” DeSmet said. “The coach here [Gia Kvaratskhelia], is one of the best, nicest, and most amazing coaches in the country.

Also, because everyone on the team fenced at such a high level before coming here, I’m familiar with so many of them. It’s fun to be teammates with former rivals who I have known for years.”

Notre Dame’s prominence in the foil has provided DeSmet with many mentors and role models on the team.

“Our team captain (senior) Zach Schirtz has been really helpful, and the upperclassmen have helped me manage balancing fencing and travel with school,” DeSmet said.

DeSmet is also learning to balance fencing for Notre Dame and individual tournaments outside of NCAA competition.

Unlike many collegiate sports, fencers continue to fence as individuals throughout their college years.

“I try to treat them as equal as possible and give them both equal weight,” DeSmet said. “I haven’t had any conflicts just yet but when I do I will evaluate and play it by ear.”

DeSmet has adjusted to college fencing quite successfully, as he has managed to keep his fencing at its highest level, a difficult task for many student fencers. He is coming off two impressive third-place finishes, at the North American Cups in Atlanta and Dallas, both in the top division.

DeSmet hopes to continue his strong start to his freshman season and eventually represent the team in the NCAA championships and to fence for the United States national team at the World Championships for the fifth time.

While the current season is important to DeSmet, like many fencers on the Notre Dame team, his ultimate goal is to fence at the highest level.

“My eventual goal for is the Olympics,” DeSmet said. “I was just shy of qualifying for Beijing in 2008 I am really hoping to make some finals of some World Cups, improve my world ranking, and fence in London in 2012.”